Doll craft in the doldrums

J. Sakthivel shows the starting stage of a Chettiar doll at his home-based factory in Punainallur Mariamman Temple, Thanjavur. Photo: R.M. Rajarathinam   | Photo Credit: R_M_RAJARATHINAM;R_M_RAJARATHINAM - R_M_RAJARATHINAM

Punainallur Mariamman Kovil looks like any other rural southern Indian outpost. Driving past the canopied stretch of a road that is also the thoroughfare for the bus station adjoining the massive temple complex that gives this suburb of Thanjavur its name, visitors will be struck by the number of stalls selling plastic toys here.

Just a few streets behind, some families are engaged in crafting the famed Thanjavur ‘thalai-atti’ (bobble-head) and ‘uruttu’ (roly-poly or roundpot rocking) dolls, with a finesse that speaks of centuries of experience.

Brought to Thanjavur by Maratha ruler Raja Serfoji in the early 19th century, the art of making these dolls is today on the verge of becoming a footnote in India’s rich folk handicraft history. “There used to be 40-60 families engaged in making these dolls once, now only around four or five are left,” rues S. Bhoopathy, who admits he’s the last in his clan to engage in doll-making. “My grandfather and father used to make these dolls, but now my children want to go for a different livelihood,” he says as he unpacks stock that has been returned by the government showroom Poompuhar at the end of the financial year.

“It’s hard to calculate the time you spend making these toys,” says Dhanalakshmi, who has been working with her two sons, Sakthivel and Malayandi at their small home-based factory for the past 15 years. “Profits are quite low, for so much work that you have to put in, which is why not many want to join the trade,” she reasons, while shaping the upper half of the ‘paati’ (grandmother) doll of the ‘Chettiar set’.

Made by hand

Dolls, modelled on the human form, have been a feature of world civilisations, mostly for worship or magic rituals. The Thanjavur dolls, which earned a place in the Georgaphical Indication Registry in 2009, reflect a unique combination of modern aesthetics and ingenious engineering.

All the dolls have a lightweight body made of tapioca flour, papier mache and plaster of Paris cooked and kneaded to the consistency of roti dough.

Copper sulphate powder is added as a fungicide.

Each toy is made in halves, by pressing the rolled out ‘doll dough’ into cement-based moulds, with liberal dustings of chalk powder. The dried halves are reinforced with sheets of paper at the back and glued together with a home-cooked adhesive that uses tapioca flour as a base. The dancer dolls have a heavier pedestal-shaped feet section. The roly-poly toys on the other hand, use a bowl-shaped clay base (shaped using moulds), that ensures that the doll remains upright.

Once assembled, the dolls are sandpapered and then hand-painted, with water-colours for the dancing girl and oil paints for the others. The dancing girl has four sections, each balancing on the other with the help of metal loop hooks that create the light bobbling movement.

“It takes us around 15 days to get a batch of dolls ready,” says Sakthivel, who used to be a brass vessel worker before.

One kilo of doll dough can be used to make around 75 dolls. The small factory produces around 30 dancing girl dolls and 200 roly-poly toys of various sizes in a month.

Dwindling sales

Changing technology and economic constraints have forced the toy-makers to shift from clay to cheaper raw materials to keep up. But the growing popularity of battery-operated playthings has also limited the potential of these toys, despite their Geographical Indication status. They have always been popular during the annual ‘Golu’ doll display of the Navaratri festival, but most families rely on heirloom collections rather than buying them afresh every year.

The figurines have now become more of a tourist keepsake, something to remind visitors to Thanjavur of the city’s cultural heritage.

You can find stylised versions of Maratha nobles in the roly-poly type of dolls (called ‘Raja-Rani’). Newer additions include the Santa Claus that sells well in the Christmas season.

But both doll-makers cite a very practical reason for a sudden decrease in sales – the removal of souvenir stalls near the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Thanjavur recently in favour of car parking. “The authorities have offered to re-establish the shops near the fish market, but we’d like them to be near places frequented by tourists,” says Sakthivel. “The government hasn’t helped us with anything so far – the least it can do is to facilitate marketing our products,” adds Bhoopathy.

To add to their woes, the toys have competition in their own backyard, from other village communities like Kondapalli in Andhra Pradesh that produce almost identical versions of the Thanjavur dancing girl (and call them Kondapalli dolls), while in Kerala, the Kathakali doll has similar detachable and vibrating sections.

Both the toy-makers are unaware of online dealers charging hugely inflated prices for Thanjavur dolls. “I supply to the government showrooms, but am paid only after each piece is sold,” says Bhoopathy.

“We have to transport the unsold stock back at our own expense,” he adds.

For Sakthivel, the recent lull in local orders has made him scout for customers outside Thanjavur. “My brother went with a load of our toys and did the rounds of handicraft stores in Puthucherry last week, but nobody wants to entertain new suppliers, they already have a network of old contacts,” he says.

The little dolls crowding his workspace in Punainallur Mariamman Kovil appear to shake their heads in silent agreement.

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Printable version | Jan 16, 2021 2:54:41 AM |

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